The many faces of Etsy
Four local artists who maintain Etsy shops take very different approaches to the online craft megasite.
Each small business owner has a plan, but the role Etsy plays depends on products, time and long-term goals.
Tara Heilman,runs the Etsy store ROBOT Inside
, selling stuffed figures, including popular items like owls and the TARDIS traveling British Police Box from the popular TV series “Doctor Who.”
For Heilman, Etsy is both a place to sell and a place to participate. “Honestly, there are no drawbacks,” she says. “Etsy is supportive, the community is fun, I have met some great people, I have bought many, many, many great things from other artists.”
She says she uses Etsy much like Pinterest, and laments that although her items are marked as user favorites frequently, sales are “so so.”
Etsy is a part-time income generator for Heilman, whose profile bio describes her a “full-time mom, part-time barista, all-the-time artist.”
The Community Organizer
“There are a lot of eyeballs on Etsy, but a lot of people make similar things,” explains Grace Dobush
, a Cincinnati-based writer, speaker and crafter.
“Adding good keywords and having good descriptions and great photos is important, but that alone is not necessarily going to get you tons of sales unless what you’re making is so unique that no one makes anything even remotely similar.”
Dobush sells hand-bound books and linocut cards on Etsy, but does the majority of her transactions offline. “There’s a perception that you can start an Etsy store and then just let it go and you don’t have to do anything,” she says. “Etsy is like any online shop: it takes a lot of work to promote it.”
She joined Etsy years ago, but doesn’t put much effort into it these days.
To be fair, she doesn’t need to; Dobush has created an impressive engine for personal promotion – and connecting crafters – with her book, Crafty Superstar, cross-country speaking engagements and organization of the indie craft show Crafty Supermarket.
Shows like Crafty Supermarket fill in the gaps for artists, allowing them to connect with local buyers and circumvent the keyword-driven search feature on Etsy, which tends to backfire.
Search for the popular term “steampunk,” for example, and you may come up with anything from laptop bags to charm bracelets, as crafty vendors choose keywords based on popularity rather than the products they produce.
Vetting vendors for live craft events pre-show means shoppers have confidence that they’ll be selecting from among the best crafts in their area, rather than a hodgepodge of items, some premium quality, others resold junk.
Still, many of the vendors from the most recent Crafty Supermarket maintain Etsy shops to supplement sales. And, of course, Etsy is a primary point-of-sale for some, like DAAP-educated Hart Neely, who runs the Etsy store Modern Relics
Neely isn’t the stereotypical Etsy user who might throw a few dozen crafts online, tag a few keywords and hope for the best.
A participant in Artworks Springboard startup-business classes, he has shipped his curated collection of vintage goods to 28 states and 14 countries, including Japan, Singapore and Australia.
With a goal of expanding his client base, he’s implementing a new marketing plan to help him focus on selling more to his most profitable regions.
Talking with Neely is speaking to a small-business owner, even if that small business is an Etsy storefront. That is to say, he’s not simply an artist; he’s running a company, which just happens to be powered by Etsy.
Inspired by the “Danish modern” pieces he remembers from his grandmother’s house, Neely scours estate sales, Craigslist postings and thrift stores for his strictly curated collection. Pieces from the 60s and 70s with clean lines, solid construction, high-quality materials might make the cut. Neely’s also partial to teak woods and simple designs. He has some popular pieces, like a teak ice bucket by Dansk, that he always keeps in stock.
Because Neely’s collection is so specialized, he says Etsy helps him reach enough people to find target buyers.
“If I was at an antique store, I’d have maybe 10 people looking at it every other day versus possibly anyone in the world. Etsy’s still a good choice for me right now.”
Still, he says ditching Etsy and setting up his own website – and storefront – is part of his long-term plan.
“Etsy was a really easy decision for me as someone who had an idea but wasn’t sure how to go about starting a business,” Neely says. “It was really user-friendly and easy for me to get set up.
The downside is that there’s a charge when I sell a piece, when I list a piece, if a buyer pays through PayPal but doesn’t have an account. So it’s like all these little percentages coming off, and they can really start to add up.”
While he laments the accrual of these fees – and, perhaps, the fact that he hasn’t yet been able to devote all his energies to his shop (he maintains a full-time job) – he’s sticking with it for now.
On the other hand are Jessi Lalk and Amanda Poston of Orange Fuzz
, who work full-time, even hiring seasonal employees on occasion, making and selling natural cosmetics, soaps and shaving kits packaged in upcycled cigar boxes.
They admit to a few drawbacks to running their business via Etsy, such as customers not being able to smell scented items and policies about posting products. However, they also established relationships with retailers through the website, and don’t plan to transition away from Etsy anytime soon.
They say they love their Etsy customers and get so much daily traffic that it’s definitely worth keeping the Etsy store.
The duo says about 50 percent of their sales come through Etsy, with other revenue generated by sales at Park + Vine, Fabricate and craft shows, as well as small stores around the county.
Lalk and Poston got lucky. After being promoted (unofficially) as featured sellers on the site, they were able to devote their attention to Orange Fuzz full-time. Their story is one many an Etsy shop owner aspires to, but, as Neely pointed out, Etsy isn’t so different from any other small business – branding is key.